One line on resumes that I see often is the applicant boasting about having multitasking skills.  Twenty years ago, this was a skill you wanted to be good at, but more recent research has proven that multitasking myth as false.

Why is this a problem for Safety Managers

Well, how many tasks are you responsible for completing in a day?  Typically, it will be a very long list.

We have a lot to do in a short amount of time, with very little help.  Therefore, your time is valuable, and you want to make sure you are using it wisely.  Multitasking skills are actually wasting your time.

Unfortunately, many people believe they can beat science, and multitasking is possible for them.  I have even had people tell me they work better when they multi-task.

For the skeptics out there, let me prove it to you.

TRY THIS MULTITASKING EXPERIMENT

You will need a stopwatch (the one on your phone works) and a pen and piece of paper.  It is helpful if someone does the timing for you.

Step 1:

  1. Start the timer
  2. Write down the following 2 lines of text, one right after the other
    1. “Multi-Tasking is a Myth”
    2. Then write the numbers 1-19 in order

3. End the timer and record how long it took you

multitasking skills

Step 2:

  1. Start the timer
  2. Write the same two lines, but alternate the characters.
    1. Write the M
    2. Move to the next line and write 1
    3. Back to the 1st line and write U
    4. Move to back the 2nd line and write 2
    5. Until both are written (the order is M-1-U-2-L-3-I-4-T-5 and so on

3. Stop the timer and compare it to the first result

How accurate was this 2nd try? As you can see, I forgot the last number and I miss-wrote 2 of the numbers – my brain was still on letters.

multitasking skills

Why Multitasking Skills Don’t Work

It’s all in the brain science.

The brain is always wanting to work efficiently.  It creates neural networks for completing tasks.  For example, you have one neural pathway for writing and a different pathway for counting.

When you switch from one task to another, the brain needs to switch what pathway it is using.

There is a time delay in this switch, but there is also resistance because it wants to stay efficient and finish what it was doing.  So you get a period of a residual thought pattern.

Like when I wrote K instead of 8.  My brain was still on writing even though I was on the number line.

So this can lead to errors and a decline in the quality of work.  You’re not fully focused.

Think of it like a train.  You’re traveling along on rail, but then you have to switch tracks.  The train has to slow down a little during this process, and there is a tiny section where both tracks meet up.  This is where accidents can happen if the tracks aren’t perfectly aligned.

But when you stay on one task or one track – it’s like you are riding the express train.  No stops, no delays, just forward motion – you get there quicker with less chance of accidents happening.

How to Use this Information to Become a Better Leader

I have two tips for you:

Tip #1:

Only focus on one thing at a time. Either a task, phone call, conversation, webinar, you name it.  Whatever you choose to focus on, give it your full attention.

 

For example:

  • If a colleague walks into my office while I’m working.  I either ask them to leave or stop working and focus on what they needed.
  • On a webinar or conference call, give it your full attention.  You will not retain as much information if you are checking your email at the same time.  (think about it – have you ever had to rewind a podcast or audiobook because you missed something while you were focused on another task?
  • When inspecting with a colleague, when I find a hazard I want to point out, I stop walking or looking around and discuss it; if I continue to inspect, my explanation will be poor, or I will not inspect as well.  You think this slows you down, but it improves the quality of your work and the interaction with your colleague.

Tip #2:

Batching. Your brain likes efficiency. Work on similar tasks at the same time.  This makes the switching less drastic as the pathways are similar.  This means doing all writing that you need to do at one sitting, all filing, all reports, all email…you will complete these tasks quicker because your brain is on the express train for that task.

WHEN IT IS OK TO USE MULTITASKING SKILLS

Here are some multi-tasking examples we do successfully every day; you probably don’t even realize it.

 

  • You walk and talk
  • You eat and have a conversation
  • You operate a car and follow directions to a new location

 

What you will notice is that one of these tasks is essentially an auto-pilot task.  Something you have done so much that you don’t need your executive functioning parts of your brain to complete it – Walking, eating, driving a car. When you want to multi-task, one of those activities has to be on auto-pilot.  That means you can have lunch while on a conference call or webinar; you won’t hinder what you are learning.  But stay off your email or cell phone.

Now It’s Your Turn

I want to know if you are a believer in multitasking skills.  Comment below and share your thoughts.
Did you do my experiment?  Leave your comments below.  My time for Step 2 was awful.

    Hi, I’m Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  I train and coach new safety managers on how to effectively do their jobs in the real world.  I specialize in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture.  I would love to help you do the same.

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